Street Sounds: Desert rock from Mali

Bamako, Mali-based, four-piece “desert rock” group Songhoy Blues raises its trance rhythms and bluesy hooks in defiance on Music in Exile.

Bamako, Mali-based, four-piece “desert rock” group Songhoy Blues raises its trance rhythms and bluesy hooks in defiance on Music in Exile.

The band, displaced by Islamist extremists and their prohibitive presence (music is “haram” and a sin) and threats of violence, congregated in the south of the country to play music and carry on.

In a region of West Africa considered a point of origin for the forms that led to field hollers, spirituals, blues, jazz and eventually rock, Songhoy Blues is getting back some cross Atlantic influence.

The group’s interpretation is energizing and fresh. The opening track, Soubour, sounds like tightly focussed swamp rock. When guitarist Garba Touré overdrives his amplifier, echoes of Mississippi hill country riffs come crunching through.

Nick is a morphing of Hill Country and Chicago blues styles, driven with the relentless pulse of drummer Nathanael Dembele. The band’s sound is that of a long-lost cousin of rock and roll that has surfaced, bringing an alternate take on the early form.

Al Huesidi Terei is a skip-beat riff with a swing beat and a Malian chorus. The effect of the song is mood altering and exhilarating – another way to hear rock music. Production is crisp and the song retains clarity and gains impact when the volume is dimed.

The band are masters of the looped hook and they use the technique to create flowing grooves and textural foundations for ballad tracks (Jolie).

Music in Exile is a record of discovery (or rediscovery) of rock-based sounds being reinterpreted with Malian folk chants, trance rhythms, proto-blues sensibility and African arpeggios. The music flows at times sounding like an unfiltered rock and roll Graceland, minus the stylistic colonialism (Wayei) – a new chapter of desert rock from the heartland.

Dean Gordon-Smith is a Vernon-based musician who reviews the latest releases for The Morning Star every Friday.